Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

In the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered some great insight into and evidence of the potential effect of large public networks on the work of making cultural assets accessible. It has come from two separate sources – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but also the first ever public conversation between Wikimedia and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums).

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my focus here is on what the GLAM sector might take away from the conference (although no doubt the book is infiltrating my thinking.) The following points are not neatly sewn-up instructional lessons, and of course, people will disagree, but I believe the following are important considerations for those of us working to make cultural assets accessible online.

1. A completely different process of authorisation

I heard a lot of talk about how Wikipedia lacks authority and I heard a lot of what seemed like fear that its perceived dodginess would infect cultural institutions and jeopardise their authority. Well, for me, an almost opposite view is far more compelling.

Cultural institutions hold in their collections assets that have authority because they are original sources. No question; nothing will jeopardise that. And academic research accrues authority through the process of peer review, or by being written by someone who has accrued authority in the course of their professional career.

Wikipedia has an entirely different relationship with authority. Its articles are by definition, necessarily and absolutely not original research. And yes, Wikipedia editing is amateur. But the amazing thing is that Wikipedia articles can achieve a form of authority by virtue of the fact that the community of editors (which includes anyone who wants to be in it) finds a neutral, consensus position, and the article settles into relatively stable content. That stability is a genuine, honourable form of authority. It is not invested through credentials but emerges – and continues to emerge – out of open dialogue. And because Wikipedia gives voice to the community rather than to an individual or institution, in my view, Wikipedian authority is of great value.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the only source we need. On the contrary, it is vital to check the original sources, to seek out other sources (including primary sources!), to read critically and to adopt your own position. But Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. How many of us would deny that we regularly use it?! And the fact that Wikipedia content must be verifiable – cite and refer readers to reliable sources – positions it very well as a potential partner for cultural institutions.

2. A horde of willing and able enthusiasts

The arresting image below resides in the German Federal Archive but now – along with almost 100,000 others – it also resides in the Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph from the German National Archives via Wikimedia, June 1942 – Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-N0619-506

Jewish women with yellow star, Paris, June 1942 – from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia – Deutsches Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F000136-0009

It’s there because Mathias Schindler negotiated a deal with the Bundesarchiv, by which the archive would release 100,000 images into the public domain, and in return, Wikipedians would help by describing the photographs and matching person data (authority files – the A-word again!) in three places – German Wikipedia, National Archive and National Library.

As an employee of a federal archive, I am acutely conscious of the scale of the work involved in description and digitisation – core tasks usually prerequisite to making cultural assets accessible. Anything with the potential to distribute this load must be worth exploring. That way, more culture can be shared more widely which is, of course, the point.

The experience of the National Library of Australia in soliciting bulk text enhancement – via its wonderful Australian Newspapers project – provides further evidence that the public can be relied upon to do a mammoth amount of good work in enhancing OCR’d microfilm.

3. More accessible doesn’t seem to mean less profitable

And importantly, evidence is amassing at the Powerhouse Museum that increasing the accessible reach of your photographs, through the Flickr Commons, has a massive impact on how many people see and tag your images, but very little effect on image sales.


In short, unlike Angelina, I came away from GLAM-wiki feeling fairly enthusiastic – like Gerard – about the possibilities for partnership.

2 thoughts on “Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

  1. Pingback: The Wikipedia Signpost (wikisignpost) 's status on Monday, 10-Aug-09 15:21:45 UTC -

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